Truth or Fiction by Jennifer Johnston continues my Northern Exposure series which highlight literature from Northern Ireland and is also, helpfully, one of my 20 Books of Summer!
Jennifer Johnston’s fiction regularly deals with themes of memory, loss and an inability to come to terms with the past and Truth or Fiction is no different. The reader is primed from the title on – what is real and what can we believe, both from the characters and from Johnston herself.
Desmond Fitzmaurice is an aging, once feted but now all-but forgotten Irish playwright, living out his years with his second wife Anna in a large house on the outskirts of Dublin. Caroline Wallace is a forty-five year old journalist from London, dispatched by her editor to do a piece on Desmond – to whip up some colourful interest and shine a spotlight on his work once again.
Caroline is not too interested in Desmond, or his work. She has problems with her own – her partner of 10 years has finally proposed and Caroline has been rocked by the realisation that the idea of marriage has come too late for them. Nonetheless, she becomes dramatically immersed in Desmond’s complicated personal life. Caroline is brought into the confidence of Desmond’s ex-wife Pamela, whom he still meets in secret once a week, whilst trying to navigate the tense relationship with his current wife Anna.
Caroline is forced to listen to tapes that Desmond has kept for years – many detailing a lost love affair with another woman Abby – but others hinting at a darker secret, linked to Desmond’s service during the war. At no time can she work out what is real or what is made up, and Desmond has no inclination to enlighten her. There is every possibility that Desmond’s esteemed memories are nothing more that fantasy.
‘Memory feeds us. Not only our proper memory, but also our folk memory…The sleeping tiger, there in all of us. Waiting to spring, pinion us to the ground with memories. Smother us’
Ambiguity is key here. Desmond wants to be re-discovered, but does not want to commit to any truth. He has kept meticulous diaries over the years but never offers to show them to Caroline.
It is telling that all of the women in his life have been actors and that he has built a life creating fictions yet when tensions rise, it seems like Desmond is creating these fictions to cover up some unpleasant behaviour of his own.
As Caroline becomes more and more fed-up with the capriciousness of these unpleasant characters, it is hard not to agree with her. Although well drawn, Desmond is an unpleasant character and it is hard to feel sympathy for any of the key players here. More of a novella than a novel, Truth or Fiction feels like it needs to be longer and go deeper in order to make the story a more convincing one.
The ambiguity becomes wearing, but then Johnston probably wants it to be so. For there is another level of dissembling at work in this novel – another possible fiction, or truth at play here.
Jennifer Johnston’s father Denis Johnston was a well-regarded Irish playwright whose work fell out of fashion. He too had two marriages and kept meticulous diaries and the similarities between the two are striking. Is Johnston re-creating the truth of her father’s final years, or are we reading yet another fiction, which draws, as authors often do, on her own past?
There are no final answers here and even if Truth or Fiction is not wholly successful, it still highlights Johnston’s skills as a writer. She is adept at creating wholly believable characters with a brevity of words and probing the complicated and often fraught nature of family life.
She writes with a quiet subtlety, cut through with sharp realism, which makes anything she writes worth the time.
If you are interested in reading more of Jennifer Johnston’s work, I highly recommend checking out Kim’s blog – Reading Matters – as she has a raft of fantastic reviews of Johnston’s novels.
Read on: Book
Number Read: 225
Number Remaining: 521
20 Books of Summer: 6/20
About the Author:
Jennifer Johnston was born in Dublin in 1932 and her first published work was Captain the the Kings in 1972. Since then, she has published many more novels, including Shadows on our Skin (1977), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction, and The Old Jest (1979), set in the War of Independence and winning the 1979 Whitbread Novel Award. The Old Jest was later filmed as The Dawning, starring Anthony Hopkins.
Other novels include: How Many Miles to Babylon? (1974), set in World War I, and later adapted for stage; The Invisible Worm (1991), dealing with the subject of sexual abuse, and shortlisted for the Daily Express Best Book of the Year Award; The Gingerbread Woman (2000), about a widower who has lost his wife and child to terrorists; This Is Not a Novel (2002); Grace and Truth (2005); Foolish Mortals (2007); Truth or Fiction (2009); Shadowstory (2011); Fathers and Son (2012); and A Sixpenny Song (2013).
Jennifer Johnston also writes plays. These have included The Nightingale and Not the Lark (1980), and O Ananias, Azarias and Misael (first published in Best Radio Plays of 1989, 1990). She lives in County Derry and her novels have been published in many countries.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!